Influencer - Ashlee Kelly

ashlee kelly.jpg

Taking Tiny Steps

Ashley Kelly | Influencer + Jxnpreneur

by Christopher Lomax

It’s funny how these things work in Mississippi. So, stop me if this sounds familiar. 

A smart, driven dreamer gets a taste of entrepreneurship. The newly minted entrepreneur sets out to build their idea into reality. Yet, the reality of the Mississippi venture landscape provides for a frustrating toil as the idea trods forward, day by day, week by week, month by month - you get the picture.

I’ve seen it before. In fact I lived it before. I started Mantle. from the same frustrating roots and intentions that Ashlee Kelly started her super-awesome and free (for now) online resource Jxnpreneur

A New Orleans native and married to a Houston (TX) transplant, Ashlee’s journey began at Startup Weekend in 2016 with her architect-husband when they won that entrepreneur idea-athon with their tiny homes concept: TinyJXN. The two landed here in Jackson and connected when they chose to attend Jackson State University.

They have stayed to put their stamp on this land of problems - eh, opportunity.

Ashlee and her husband followed their own advice: “Start!”

“My biggest message to new entrepreneurs is to start,” says Ashlee. “A lot of people think they need money or something more to start. We started at Startup Weekend and didn’t really have a plan up to that point, but we had an idea and it opened up many resources for us.” 

“So, I say, Start. Try!”

Ashlee, a Jackson and Mississippi transplant herself, loves that Jackson seems to be full of transplants that are interested in the “project” that the city itself seems to present. 

The daughter of a New Orleans entrepreneur, Ashlee admits that she misses the food, music, and culture that New Orleans seems to ooze at all times, everyday. “Jackson has a lot of what I miss in New Orleans, it’s just in New Orleans it is constant while in Jackson you have to wait around for cool things to do.” What Jackson is every now and again she notes “is the way that things are all the time in New Orleans.”

But while Jackson is on the cusp of providing the excess of food, events, and culture that a place like New Orleans provides all the time, Ashlee feels like she started her entrepreneurial journey in the right place.

“There is a lot of easy, free information available for entrepreneurs in Jackson and it is very easy to approach people about that information,” she considers. “I am not sure New Orleans would be as easy to get all the information that we link on Jxnpreneur. However, it’s not all easy, in many cities, the process is more online or all online - and streamlined. Here things have to be digged for and entrepreneurs live and work in silos a bit more.”

But, while it is not perfect yet, according to Ashlee, Jackson’s problems make for great opportunities such as its much more attractive cost of living over the cost to live in larger, more established entrepreneurial cities like New Orleans. That low cost of living can provide for a longer runway for entrepreneurs to follow Ashlee’s advice and start jumping into their ideas.

When Ashlee and her husband started their journey with TinyJXN (@TinyJXN on Twitter) at Startup weekend two years ago they seemed to have finally started showing the symptoms of a bug that had already infected them. 

They were sick with entrepreneurship.

The husband-architect and Ashlee-the-urban-developer won first place with TinyJXN tiny homes concept company. 

Tiny homes is an urban planning trend that has taken root in other parts of the country in which entrepreneurs, veterans, and new graduates are starting their lives in homes that average about 400-500 square feet. These type of homes rarely get above 900 square feet. Ashlee and TinyJXN won Startup Weekend because they were interested in not just creating a single home but entire tiny home communities. 

But, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one tiny step - or, in this case one tiny home.

“My biggest surprise and frustration is how long it took us to build one small, tiny home.” The zoning, banking, and permitting have all slowed down TinyJXN. “We are hopeful that once the first one goes up then it will get easier,” she mused, “but it has taken us two years to get to this point.”

“When we finished Startup Weekend we thought we would have our first home pretty quickly, noting that, “we owned the land and everything.”

But, entrepreneurship is never easy or for the faint of heart. It often takes talented people. But it also takes determined people like Ashlee to push through what Seth Godin calls The Dip - the guaranteed temporary setback that can be overcome with persistence.

To Push through, to pivot, or both...

Like many inspired entrepreneurs in Jackson and around Mississippi, TinyJXN fell into a funding black hole. Finding financing, equity or banking, proved to be a huge hurdle that dramatically slowed down this Startup Weekend winning concept. The financing along with outdated permitting and building regulations has kept their project going, albeit slowly.

Frustrating? Yes. But, out of the lack of funding may have been the silver lining.

TinyJXN’s lack of funding to pay for services that one may traditionally pay someone else to do led Ashlee to do those tasks herself. “Because we were funding Tiny Homes I wanted to do as much of this my stuff myself and save money.”

It was at this point that Ashlee had that Mississippi-entrepreneur realization. The information is out there for you to figure out how to play this game - if you look hard enough and you get really good at Google. There are also some “hidden resources” available to Jacksonians and Mississippians, but finding that information takes time and time is the most valuable and non-renewable resource a newly established company has at its disposal.

“My husband and I were starting this business and being on that side of it was a lot harder than I thought. But a lot of this stuff that I was actually reading through for TinyJXN I realized would be useful to other people as well.”

She started thinking about curating this entrepreneurial information which she was already doing on her own.
“I was already involved in entrepreneurship through economic development. So, I was assigned to these different committees. and I was applying all these resources,” Ashlee noted. “One of my duties was to get small businesses and minority businesses to build their capacity. I had all this information and all these resources and I was spamming all my family and friends with this information and thought maybe I should put this on a website.”

Jxnpreneur was born.

These days Ashlee is posting up to three articles per day on social media for Jackson and any entrepreneur anywhere. “Jxnpreneur’s goal is to be all the resources necessary for entrepreneurs and small businesses for free and on one site.” And, while Jxnpreneur focuses its resources on those available in Mississippi and Jackson for now, Ashlee notes that many of her visitors come from out of state.

Ashlee runs Jxnpreneur on her own and she is paying for everything while trying to figure out how best to monetize it. 

“We are about to launch a Jxnpreneur group on Facebook where everyone can have more detailed discussions about entrepreneurship and market their businesses,” she says, talking about the expansion of her side hustle. “Jxnpreneur’s future will include events and workbooks for entrepreneurs.”

This Jxnpreneur is truly a juggler. 

Now Ashlee spends much of her day - when she is not working, being a new mom, being a TedX speaker, or working on TinyJXN - on her iPhone, the entrepreneur tool that she simply cannot live without. I use my phone to subscribe to a bunch of sites and funnel it all to my social media using apps like Edison Mail, Social Pilot, and Canva. All these apps help her manage her new little creation from wherever she is.

“Sometimes I am on my computer, or my iPad, but I do a lot of stuff from my iPhone because I am always on the go," she notes.

In order to juggle all of these responsibilities and maintain her sanity Ashlee stays plugged into a world of different content. 

Motown on Spotify puts her in a bit of a zone where she gets lost in old school Diana Ross, new school Janelle Monae, and obsessively right now Anderson Paak's Malibu

Other times, “I really need distractions while I work so I also play Tiny Desk Concerts by NPR while I work.” Tiny Desk concerts - nothing to do with her tiny house concept - is a quirky NPR video channel that came about in 2008 after All Things Considered host Bob Boilen and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson left a bar show frustrated that they couldn't hear the music over the crowd noise and started inviting music acts to play at their work desk. Now all types of musicians check into Bolien’s desk to play a mini, tiny concert, and they all stream to Ashlee’s computer through YouTube.

When she is not working, she is still learning. She listens to a wide range of podcasts from self help, to news, to suspense. You can keep up with her bookshelf on Goodreads where she is doing the 20 book challenge and her recent trend has been away from self help to more entertainment: The Hate You Give a novel by a local Jackson author and Black Privilege: Opportunities Come to Those Who Create It are on tap.

Building the future of Jackson.

She is coy to admit it, and I had to coax it out of her, but she does slow down. Soul Spa, the new spa at the downtown Westin, is her guilty pleasure for chilling out when she is not doing her several jobs, being a mom, or running Jxnpreneur. “I got a gift certificate for it and am a little obsessed now.”

But, in general, Ashlee relaxes like the rest of us and loves to meet up with friends and hang out when possible these days.

“All of our friends are like us and are all in similar boats with kids and businesses and side businesses, so that can be a bit harder these days. But, it’s great when we can make it happen.”

As for TinyJXN, Ashlee admits it’s been a journey and getting that first home followed up by tiny home communities off the ground is still the goal. Jackson is the perfect landscape for it with vacant land ready to build the future homes of the next round of Jxnpreneurs.

In the meantime, she hopes more people in Jackson will get out there and just “start.” 

Drop by Jxnpreneur, and find the resources for helping guide the way in building your own idea, and if she can make it better or she’s missing an event, let her know.


On the web:

On Social: @jxnpreneur | @ashleedtkelly


Christopher Lomax is the Founder of Mantle. City Club + Inc.ubator